Gore is feel-good story of '05 season

It was more a time for consolation than celebration. Jason Gore joined his buddies in a North Carolina sports bar, figuring it was the least he could do. They had come all the way from California to watch the biggest round of his life, only to see him shoot the 84 at Pinehurst that figured to send him back to obscurity.

Little could they have known that night, as they awkwardly tried to focus on the positives from a week that saw Gore go from the Prince of Pinehurst back to anonymity, that he would emerge as one of the surprises of the year in golf.

Going from the inglorious 14-over-par effort that day to a PGA Tour card is the stuff of dreams. But it came true for Gore.

Prior to that, there were plenty of reasons to drown his sorrows.

Not only had he blown a chance to win a major championship, but he had also squandered a bunch of other perks that would have come with a high finish at such a prestigious tournament.

Instead of a big payday, he earned just $20,275, and still faced the prospect of playing in the developmental Nationwide Tour without a full exemption, knowing that money borrowed earlier in the year to finance his golf career still had to be repaid.

Turns out, Gore's 15 minutes of fame were not up; they were just starting.

In one of golf's feel-good stories of 2005, Gore dusted himself off after that 84, returned to the Nationwide Tour, and won three times (and shot a 59 along the way). That earned him an automatic promotion to the PGA Tour, and he didn't stop there, winning the 84 Lumber Classic in September.

Now Gore has a world of possibilities to consider.

"I'm happy with everything that's happened, but I'm not satisfied," said Gore, 31, a former star at Pepperdine who twice has failed to keep his PGA Tour card. "You have to keep working hard to try to get better. That's what I'm trying to do. It actually made me a lot hungrier."

Gore, the Nationwide Tour player of the year, was not the only surprise of 2005. Paula Creamer won an LPGA tour event the week before she graduated from high school and went on to finish second to Annika Sorenstam on the money list. She had the rookie of the year award wrapped up by midseason.

Sean O'Hair garnered more attention coming onto the PGA Tour for his rocky relationship with his father than he did for his game, but that changed when he finished second at the Byron Nelson, won the John Deere Classic and made a nice showing at the British Open to win PGA Tour rookie of the year honors.

Then there was short-hitting Fred Funk, who will be eligible for the Champions Tour next year, winning the prestigious Players Championship. And New Zealand's Michael Campbell, who missed his first five cuts of the year and went on to win the U.S. Open. And what about Birdie Kim, who came out of nowhere to hole a bunker shot on the last hole to win the U.S. Women's Open?

But Gore's story was the biggest shock.

At the beginning of the year, Gore, who lives in Valencia, Calif., was playing the A.G. Spanos Tour, a Southern California mini-tour that requires entrants to put up their own cash. He borrowed $12,000, while hoping to get into some events on the Nationwide Tour, where he was no longer fully exempt.

Although it was good for Gore's ego to compete against players who knew he had a name in the game, his disposition had not improved much a few months later, as the results were far from impressive.

"He was putting a lot of work into something he wasn't getting much out of," said Gore's wife, Megan.

Gore considered giving up professional golf.

"When you're not seeing what you think you should be seeing and nothing is really paying off, maybe you can stop and look in the mirror and say, 'This just isn't for me,'" Gore said. "I think the low point was probably five or six weeks before the Open and thinking, 'This probably isn't going to work out.' I was struggling. I was whining and complaining and just not doing what I had to do."

Gore entered qualifying for the U.S. Open, and made it through both local and sectional stages to get in the field at Pinehurst, where he became a fan favorite after shooting a second-round 67 to share the lead.

At 6-foot-1 and 235 pounds, Gore looks like a linebacker, and he has a lovable side that endears him to galleries. That was quite apparent at Pinehurst, where he made a birdie putt on the final hole during the third round to earn a final-group pairing with two-time U.S. Open champion Retief Goosen, but made fun of himself afterward.

"When I made that putt I kind of pointed at it, kind of Tiger-esque," Gore said. "I looked at my caddie afterward and I said, 'Did I just point that ball into the hole?' And he said, 'Yeah, you did.' And I said, 'What a cheese ball.'"

Gore really felt like one the next day when, starting out three shots behind Goosen, he imploded. Forget winning the tournament, just a respectable finish could have earned him a six-figure payday or an invitation to the 2006 U.S. Open or status on the PGA Tour.

But the 84 did a lot of damage, dropping him into a tie for 49th.

Things got so bad during the final round that Goosen, who was also struggling, proposed a wager with Gore, a $5 bet that would cover the final few holes. Goosen won the consolation prize, but never collected -- until late in the year at the Funai Classic.

"He gave me my five bucks," Goosen said. "We're square now."

Goosen rebounded from his final-round 81 at the Open to win the International, a European Tour event in Germany and another tournament in China. But as a two-time U.S. Open champion who has won the European Tour's Order of Merit and more than a dozen events around the world, that was no surprise. Goosen, after all, is ranked fourth in the world.

There were no such guarantees for Gore, though. He was ranked 818th in the world heading into the U.S. Open -- "My area code at home," he said -- and figured to slink back into obscurity.

"You just have to accept those sort of things are going to happen, you keep grinding away," Goosen said. "He knows he's a good player. One bad round doesn't make you a bad player. He played really well and played especially well after that. Maybe it gave him a boost the other way, a confidence boost that he can play under pressure."

Something about that experience at Pinehurst changed Gore. The large galleries cheering him on. The good golf he played for most of the tournament. The front-row seat to Goosen's collapse.

"I took it as a learning experience," Gore said. "I competed with the best players in the world for 63 holes and I hung in there. I think I needed to see that. I needed to have the confidence of knowing I can play at this level. That golf course is brutal ... It was a great learning experience and I knew that the next time I teed it up, it wouldn't be as bad as that."

After the U.S. Open, Gore won four tournaments and banked more than $1 million. In just eight tournaments on the PGA Tour, he made $871,135.

Sounds like the next party is on Gore.

Bob Harig covers golf for the St. Petersburg Times and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at harig@sptimes.com.